This week’s lessons:
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-7
I have been enjoying Ken Burns’ newest docuseries on country music. One of the many wonderful stories was about Charley Pride. Pride was not the first African American in country music; the genre owes much to many nameless musicians of color, but he remains one of only three African American members of the Grand Ole Opry. When he came to Nashville to record, his first record was released without a publicity photo. He was told that eventually he was going to encounter one singer who would be a major racial impediment.
Pride concluded that if he was going to run into him eventually, he might as well get it over with. He sought the man out and said that the two started to play songs together, taking turns. The music transcended the barrier, and the two became life-long friends.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into a Polish family of Hasidic Jews in 1907. He studied for his doctorate at Berlin University. While living in Frankfurt in 1938, Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Warsaw. Weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel obtained a scholar’s visa to London. His family did not fare as well: his mother was murdered by the Nazis, one sister died in a German bombing and two others died in concentration camps. In 1940, he arrived in New York where he taught at Hebrew Union College.
In 1962, Heschel’s German doctoral dissertation was expanded and translated into a two-volume English set called The Prophets. Heschel described the difference between the Jewish prophets and the soothsayers and diviners of other traditions. He argued that the role of the prophet was not to predict the future but to reveal the grief of God at a people who had turned their collective backs. The prophets reminded the people of God’s eternal concern for the poor and dispossessed, the weak and the voiceless.
In 1963 Abraham Joshua Heschel met Martin Luther King at a summit on religion and race in Chicago. An aging polish Jew from New York and a young black Baptist from Atlanta were an unlikely pair, but they shared a mutual understanding that the kingdom of God was not something that comes after you die, rather something to strive for here and now. “The exodus began,” he told those attending, “but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Two prophets with very different histories but a common understanding of what King would call the “Beloved Community.”
Two years later, Abraham Heschel was the only white man on the front row of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel linked the struggle for civil rights in the United States to the struggle of the Jews seeking liberation from Pharaoh and empire. He was critical of religious traditions that hid behind stained glass windows and failed to confront the evil of racism. He remained an activist until his death in 1972.
Here is a critique from Rabbi Heschel on the failure of religious communities:
“We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. …What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. [Racism is] the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity [for radical change]. Reverence for God is shown in reverence for man. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”